Deborah Kerr

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp runs two and three-quarters hours and takes place over forty years. The former’s passage is sublime, the latter’s is subtle. Directors Powell and Pressburger bookend the film in the present, then flashback. The lead at the start of the film is James McKechnie. He’s a lieutenant who gets some orders and decides he’s going to get creative with them, which takes him–after some truly amazing driving sequences with motorcycles and army trucks–to aged general Roger Livesey hanging out in some Turkish baths with his pals, steam wetting his walrus moustache. It’s young versus old; McKechnie’s got the new ideas, Livesey’s got the old.

Only what if, at one point, Livesey had the new ideas and someone else had the old. The film flashbacks forty years to a much younger Livesey–the makeup on him in Blimp is a significant achievement–just coming home from the Boer War. He’s just found out a spy he knew from the war (David Ward) is in Berlin, drumming up anti-British sentiment over the conflict. Being a good British officer, Livesey thinks it’s his job to get involved, which introduces him to Deborah Kerr–an English governess in Berlin who doesn’t like the anti-British sentiment. Then Livesey’s big mouth gets him in more trouble, leading him to meet–gradually–German officer Anton Walbrook.

Blimp is never more comedic than during this portion of the flashback. Powell and Pressburger come up with some really good sequences, quite different than how the film opens. The present is movement and sound–the driving sequences, beautifully photographed (by Georges Périnal) and edited (by John Seabourne Sr.)–are visually ambitious. As well as aurally–the truck part of the sequence is set to fast, popular music. The past has a slower pace, visually, but only initially. There’s a lot of establishing work done. Then Powell and Pressburger start getting more and more ambitious.

Some of their ambitions are with how to move through the forty year flashback. They come up with a couple excellent devices, which they use multiple times throughout Blimp, to move the action forward in time without having to do anything with the actors.

Since Blimp is about the military, Powell and Pressburger are also able to get away with a bunch of exposition in the dialogue without it slowing things down. After the time transition, there’s a little catch-up, but never too much. Each scene in Blimp is perfectly timed, which probably helps it breeze through its not-insignificant runtime.

When the action gets to World War I, things are very different. Livesey’s starting to get makeup. He’s also got a sidekick–John Laurie–the film goes through phases of actors. It starts with Livesey, Kerr, and Walbrook. Then it’s Livesey, Laurie, and Kerr. Finally it’s Livesey, Walbrook, Laurie, and Kerr. But there are some interesting complications.

Anyway. The World War I sequence. Whereas the film opens with these modern army motorcycles zooming along, with shots alongside, snappily edited, with this fast music accompanying, the World War I sequence feels like a stage play. The exterior backdrops are clearly paintings. Livesey and Laurie are usually outside. Well, Laurie’s always outside. But he and Livesey will have these interactions during the exteriors before Livesey has to go in and talk to these soldiers or those soldiers. Livesey’s a general now. Travelling the front in Flanders; the soldiers inside don’t have the same read on the war as Livesey. They think he’s out of touch. And when Livesey’s in the war, it’s that stagy exterior. They’re exquisite sets, but they’re definitely not reality. It’s very subjective. And awesome, because Livesey never gets to talk about how he’s internalizing anything. He’s British. They aren’t supposed to internalize.

But the World War I stuff isn’t just Livesey on the front, it’s also Livesey meeting Kerr (just after the war) and having a grand romance. Only Kerr is playing a different character than before. She’s the same age as she was in the first sequence, just all right with her twenty-year senior paramour Livesey. And Walbrook comes back. As a German prisoner of war. Who also has a much different read on things than Livesey. Walbrook gets some great scenes in this section. He gets great scenes later on, but he didn’t get any great scenes–where he got the best material–in the first section. The film treats Walbrook very differently in each sequence, which is awesome, because Walbrook’s so good developing his character over forty years. He’s got a very different part than Livesey. As life for a German from 1902 to 1942 was much different than a British person in the same period.

In the present–or near present, the last section of the flashback, catching up to the bookend–Livesey and Walbrook are reunited once again. The sections are all about twenty years apart. 1902, 1918, 1939. The bookend is in 1943, with the catchup over the last four years of the present action the fastest. But Livesey’s in the same makeup in the last section as he was in the opening bookend. He’s become the guy at the beginning of the movie. The old general who young and capable McKechnie thought was so out of it.

The film’s not really about Livesey being out of it or not. It’s a character study set against British and European history (and social history), with some really grandoise moves from Powell and Pressburger. Kerr playing three different characters–Livesey has a type, he eventually confesses (though Laurie suggests the film skips over five more Kerrs during the first World War)–it’s a grandoise move. Especially since they’re rather different characters, even if Livesey wants to gaze on each one with the same adoration. Kerr gets some glorious moments in Blimp, though her most impressive acting comes in the third sequence, when she is no longer romantic partner material for Livesey or Walbrook.

The production’s impeccable. Powell and Pressburger have various styles throughout, something different for the time period, type of scene, setting. There’s always a new style they’ll implement to get a scene done, developing on a previous one or just doing something entirely new; even in the last scene, they’re still switching up the style. Glorious Technicolor photography from Périnal. Seabourne’s editing, whether he’s being flashy or not, is always fantastic. Great music from Allan Gray (and some exquisite use of classical composers as well). Junge’s production design–phenomenal. The whole production is breathtaking.

Walbrook’s got the meatier role but Livesey’s got the harder one. He’s got to develop a character underneath a caricature. Walbrook gets to break out of a caricature. It’s hard to say who gives a better performance. Same film, very different types of roles leading to different types of performances. I’ll start to type Livesey, then think I should type Walbrook, but shouldn’t I type Livesey. Ad nauseum.

Kerr’s great. She doesn’t have to break from caricature so much as develop a character the film never really shows. She’s idealized and objectified (not visually, but narratively). She transcends those constraints, which is kind of the point. Powell and Pressburger set that detached, off-kilter narrative distance and then do everything to facilitate her being able to cross it. While still staying detached and off-kilter.

The stunning thing about Blimp is how much the filmmakers are doing throughout. After the first section of the flashback–there’s always this theme or that theme, this exceptionally gentle subplot, that exceptionally gentle subplot–and they keep them all going at once. While still doing the various character developments. And history lessons. It’s a dense, narratively, visually, conceptually. Blimp couldn’t be a minute shorter.

Laurie’s great in the fourth biggest role. He gets to be the humor in the later sections of the flashback, when the world isn’t really funny at all anymore. After those four actors, no one really stands out. Not because they’re not good–they’re usually great–but they’re just in the film for a scene or two. Sometimes separated by twenty-one years.

Muriel Aked’s got a really nice scene with Livesey. She’s his only family, his aunt. She gets to humanize him quite a bit. Even if it’s with hunting trophies.

But Livesey, Walbrook, and Kerr are the film. Powell and Pressburger stick to them. Even when someone’s chastising Livesey and it’s over his shoulder, the directors are sticking to him. There are some magnificent scenes in Blimp. The way the filmmakers execute them enthralls. And they seem to know they’re being enthralling and they’re excited to get to enthrall.

Blimp’s also a very serious film. Far more serious than the opening bookend suggests. More serious than the first section of the flashback suggests. The World War I sequence, which totally changes the visual tone of the film–realistic to subjective–is when Blimp starts getting really serious. And it never stops. That seriousness helps break Livesey’s caricature, it helps get Kerr across that intentionally protracted narrative distance, it’s what Walbrook has to embody.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; director of photography, Georges Périnal; edited by John Seabourne Sr.; music by Allan Gray; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter / Barbara Wynne / Johnny Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), John Laurie (Murdoch), James McKechnie (Spud Wilson), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge), Albert Lieven (von Ritter), and Harry Welchman (Major Davies).


Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)

Despite taking place in a very English hotel with very English residents–all of them long-term residents, not temporary guests–Separate Tables hinges almost entirely on the Americans. Burt Lancaster is one such American. He’s a regular resident (even ostensibly engaged to manager Wendy Hiller; they’re definitely carrying on illicitly anyway). And Rita Hayworth is the other American. She’s one of the two inciting incidents. Though, arguably, Hiller and Lancaster’s engagement is the root inciter on that one.

The other inciting incident is retired British Army major David Niven getting into a bit of scandal. Niven is a blowhard, genially annoying to all his fellow residents–except Deborah Kerr. She’s there with her mother, Gladys Cooper. Cooper’s a nasty upper class widow, Kerr’s her terrorized, utterly controlled daughter. Cooper browbeats her, while Kerr resents her own day dreams. Only with Niven does she get a little bit of relief.

Cooper disapproves, of course, and is very glad to manipulate Niven’s scandal to hurt both him and Kerr. In a very British upper class sort of way. Cooper’s the film’s villain, but of course she’s a villain. Her behavior can’t be anything but reprehensible, given her character. Hard to feel malice towards her.

The Niven scandal–and Kerr’s reaction to it–is half the story. The other half is Hayworth and Lancaster. They used to be married. She’s a former fashion model, he’s an author of some renown. Their marriage ended with Lancaster in prison for assaulting her. But now she’s heard he’s fallen on hard times and was in London meeting her fiancé’s family and thought she’d look him up. To provide moral support. And, you know, seduce him. Because brute working class guys made good is the only thing ever to do it for her.

Except Lancaster still resents her for forcing him into the assault–she denied him his conjugal rights. Hearing Lancaster complain she didn’t let him treat her as property kind of undermines his sympathetic potential. Though, as it turns out, even though the Americans keep Separate Tables moving, they’re not really supposed to be the sympathetic ones.

They’re an extreme. Cooper (and Cooper’s way of thinking, which influences Kerr and even Niven) is another extreme. Tables is all about finding the balance.

The film takes place over a particularly eventful sixteen or so hours. Just before dinner to breakfast the next day. Tables runs a couple minutes under a hundred minutes, with the first act establishing a bunch of characters. The other residents include Cathleen Nesbitt as Cooper’s partner-in-crime, Felix Aylmer as a stuck-up retired public school teacher, May Hallatt as a horse better, and Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton as two indiscreet lovers. Taylor’s studying for his surgical exams. Dalton’s ostensibly there to help, but she mostly just seduces him–literally–away from them. Initially, it’s through Taylor and Dalton the implied activity of sexual congress–which Cooper, Nesbitt, and Alymer–all find so distasteful, gets mentioned.

Cooper and Lancaster have just been doing it in secret for years before the engagement, which is still tentative and super-hush hush.

Separate Tables is a lot of talking, a lot of listening, a lot of silent, pained emoting. Once Niven breaks down in the first fifteen minutes–see, he knows the scandal is about to become known–it’s obvious the film’s tone is going to be somewhat peculiar. Director Mann relies entirely on the performances. He’s got a handful of showy moves, which all work beautifully, but it’s almost entirely shot to facilitate the performances. With Charles Lang’s gorgeous black and white photography. The film’s technically stunning–great music from David Raksin, great production design (it’s all on sound stages, including the exquisite exteriors) by Harry Horner. Except the editing. Every once in a while, Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler’s cuts will be jarringly bad. And even when they’re not jarringly bad, they’re never fully in sync with the performances. It never ruins a scene or really hurts one overall, but the editing causes some stumbles. It’s worst when it’s in a Hayworth and Lancaster scene, because they’re already a little rocky.

Hayworth’s cold, shallow, calculating former fashion model is kind of perfect counter for the cold, calculating, but repressed Brits around her. Hayworth’s best when she shows humanity, which rarely happens around Lancaster. Lancaster’s best when he’s opposite Hiller, just because his scenes with Hayworth are usually a combination of silent rage, silent lust, or noisy exposition dumps. While both Lancaster and Hayworth are good, they’re the weakest parts of the film. Especially when they’re together.

Meanwhile, the trouble brewing over Niven is positively enthralling, as Cooper musters her fellow residents in a revolt and each of them works through their personal feelings about the situation. Only Kerr gets to explode. And the movie–through Cooper–has been promising Kerr will explode since their first scene together (which is the second or third scene in the picture), so there’s a lot of anticipation.

Kerr doesn’t disappoint. Not once in the picture, even though much of her performance is just sitting looking upset. Niven never disappoints either. He’s got the biggest character arc and kind of two parts to play. One and a half at least.

Hiller’s great too, sort of better than the film deserves. It only makes it because of her. She’s able to support her costars enough to get them through their sometimes perfunctory or abbreviated character development.

Separate Tables is deliberate, careful, thoughtful. Mann and screenwriters Terence Rattigan (adapting his play) and John Gay pace it all perfectly. It never feels stagy, never feels confined, never feels perfunctory. At least not in the plotting or events. Sure, sometimes the character development is a little too slick, but it is only a hundred minutes and the present action is only sixteen or seventeen hours. The performances are sublime, the production (save the editing) is sublime. It’s a lovely, often impeccable film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Terence Rattigan and John Gay, based on the play by Rattigan; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler; music by David Raksin; production designer, Harry Horner; produced by Harold Hecht; released by United Artists.

Starring Burt Lancaster (John Malcolm), Rita Hayworth (Ann Shankland), Deborah Kerr (Sibyl Railton-Bell), David Niven (Major Angus Pollock), Wendy Hiller (Pat Cooper), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Railton-Bell), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Matheson), Felix Aylmer (Mr. Fowler), Rod Taylor (Charles), Audrey Dalton (Jean), Priscilla Morgan (Doreen), and May Hallatt (Miss Meacham).


The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)

I don’t get it.

When I watched the film, I had no idea The Innocents was considered some masterpiece of British cinema. I’m actually rather surprised by the acclaim. Similarly, I’m shocked Deborah Kerr considered her performance in this film her best. It’s not a bad performance by any means; the plotting constrains it a great deal. I guess considering those constraints it’s a good performance. I was much more impressed with Megs Jenkins’s performance, seeing as how it was, well, unconstrained.

Perhaps some of my confusion is over a forty-year-old Kerr playing a twenty-year-old. I thought she was supposed to be playing a forty-year-old. I guess I can see it being different if her character is supposed to be twenty. Makes a backstory a lot less important (her character has no backstory, one of the major problems if you’re watching it with her being forty–and her age is never mentioned, so I don’t see as how it’s my fault).

Technically, it’s a good film. Freddie Francis had a lot of difficult shots to do in the dark and, while they aren’t the most successful things in the world (it’s not like Gregg Toland’s shooting this one), it’s a fine attempt. Clayton does get some really disturbing compositions in, but it’s never exactly scary. The film’s got two ways to go, either of them could be scary, but Clayton purposely ignores these options, so as to make the film… atmospheric without frightening.

Eh.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Jack Clayton; screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, with additional scenes and dialogue by John Mortimer, based on a novel by Henry James; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Jim Clark; music by Georges Auric; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), Peter Wyngarde (Peter Quint), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose), Michael Redgrave (The Uncle), Martin Stephens (Miles), Pamela Franklin (Flora), Clytie Jessop (Miss Jessel) and Isla Cameron (Anna).


Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

If you’ve never seen a film by the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), you’ve never seen a film like one of theirs’. If you have seen a film by the Archers, and you sit down to watch another of their films, you’ve still never seen a film like the one you’re about to watch. I’m not much of an Archers scholar–Black Narcissus is probably their most famous film and this viewing is my first–but I have seen a couple, not counting their last film–the awful Australian tourist film, They’re a Weird Mob (to be fair, Powell directed and Pressburger wrote, usually they shared duties).

The film’s story–nuns in the Himalayas–is probably impossible to describe. So much of the film depends on feeling, on little things. Describing the film, also, would cheapen it. I’ve had Black Narcissus to watch for quite a while and kept putting it off. I don’t know why, probably because the Archers made such great films, my expectations were incredibly high. The film met those expectations and even surpassed them, since it had me off-guard throughout, even when what I assumed was going to happen did. Black Narcissus doesn’t “give” the audience a lot, it expects them to take a lot from it. I can’t imagine what my response to this film would have been ten years ago, when I was first getting into Criterion laserdiscs and might have come across it for the Martin Scorsese commentary. (I could get Goodfellas at seventeen, but Goodfellas isn’t all that quiet).

There’s so much to look at in Black Narcissus, so many things one could talk about, I’ve mostly run out of ideas. The acting is great–the supporting cast has a lot to do and they’re all wonderful. You know these characters, even though there are quite a few, right away. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is famous on this film and it is amazing–even more, I suppose, since it was all shot with miniatures and matte paintings–but the editing is fantastic too. The editing makes a lot of the film.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough… certainly don’t wait around to see it like I did.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay by Powell and Pressburger, from the novel by Rumer Godden; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Brian Easdale; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Sabu (Young Prince), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Esmond Knight (Old General), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa) and Jean Simmons (Kanchi).


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